Features

Travel Destination: Palm Springs

How to make the most of a trip to Palm Springs

By Natalie Compagno and Greg Freitas January 23, 2023

Desert X installation view, Sterling Ruby, Specter, 2019.  Photo by Lance Gerber, courtesy of Desert X

This article originally appeared in the January/February 2023 issue of Seattle magazine.

“The desert tells a different story every time one ventures on it.” — Robert Edison Fulton Jr.

Everything about Palm Springs defies easy description. It is both the name of a city and a catch-all term for the small towns scattered along the vast Coachella Valley, from Cabazon to Indio. It evokes hedonism, as well as impeccable taste. It invites the young as well as the very old. It connotes vague prosperity or vague struggle — depending on which of its unique neighborhoods is explored. 

The current Palm Springs is a refreshed version of its ’80s self, revitalized by the vibrant LGBTQ+ community. It is also home to people as old as the region itself, with its dynamic Agua Caliente Band of Cahuilla Indians at that history’s core, now completing longtime projects for visitors to enjoy. 

Palm Springs is filled with secrets worth exploring, and it’s less than a three-hour flight from Sea-Tac International Airport. And it is absolutely a state of mind, with 354 days of sunshine per year and only five inches of rainfall.

Long before Spanish California or Hollywood discovered the Coachella Valley, the Agua Caliente Band of Cahuilla Indians lived peaceably for centuries in the desert. The new arrivals pushed native culture to the background. The grand opening of the Agua Caliente Cultural Plaza in downtown Palm Springs in 2023 marks a landmark achievement for indigenous locals, reasserting their cultural legacy while opening their doors to visitors. 

The Paloma Resort offers easy access to desert activities. Modernism Week’s opening night is a huge affair.

Photography courtesy of the Paloma Resort and David A. Lee

The Agua Caliente Cultural Museum will unveil 48,000 square feet of exhibit space for native artifacts and art. The five-acre property will also feature gardens with an interpretive Oasis Trail, and a gathering plaza welcoming all. The Spa at Sec-he indulges visitors as they experience the same sacred, hot mineral waters that have bathed the valley for millennia.

Hikers, birders and cyclists who appreciate the Oasis Trail will want to visit nearby Indian Canyons, the ancestral home of the Agua Caliente Band. The chiseled canyons offer scenic views of the valley, with miles of trails for biking, hiking and horseback riding. First-time visitors are often surprised by the frequent sight of rushing streams and waterfalls. 

This is one of the desert’s many secrets: Palm Springs sits atop a gigantic — but rapidly depleting — aquifer of fresh water. Lake Cahuilla, now a recreational pond, was once larger than the Great Salt Lake. Conservation matters here and it always has.

Palm Springs’ mid-century modern bona fides are well-established. If you’re in town in late February, don’t miss Modernism Week, an 11-day annual festival with more than 350 events. Tour iconic dwellings in more than 30 neighborhoods on foot, by bike or while riding a double-decker bus.  With classic car and trailers shows, and nightly cocktail parties, Modernism Week is the finest celebration of the style on the West Coast. The 2023 festival takes place from Feb. 16-23.

Frey House II has become a hillside landmark. Photo by Dan Chavkin

Tour the Annenberg Estate at Sunnylands during the festival, or whenever you’re in town. The 1966 estate — named after businessman, philanthropist and diplomat Walter Annenberg — welcomed presidents, premiers and celebrities throughout its history. Public access is by guided tour  only, but the Center & Gardens are open to all for free. The current exhibit through June is “A Place at the Table: Dining at Sunnylands,” which showcases the luxurious dinners hosted by the Annenbergs for their illustrious guests, from Bob Hope to Queen Elizabeth II. Guests can dine like an Annenberg, though. The Sunnylands Café is open for breakfast and lunch, with salads, sandwiches and “iced tea the way Mrs. Annenberg liked it.”

The Palm Springs Art Museum is always worth a visit, even for the most zealous sun worshipper. Current exhibit “Phillip K. Smith III: Light + Change” dazzles the senses through May 7. Smith’s mesmeric light installations change gradually, almost imperceptibly, in a carefully choreographed crescendo of light. It’s like seeing works of Turrell or Kusama without the long lines or exorbitant ticket prices. Better yet, schedule a visit to the artist’s studio; reservations are available online. Though his trademark installations are massive in scale, the smaller pieces will have art collectors debating which room to put one in.

Just above the museum in Tahquitz Canyon — but truly a world away — a visit to Frey House II is a Palm Springs experience like no other. The tiny, 800-square-foot house made of concrete, glass and corrugated metal doesn’t begin to tell the story of Albert Frey; your tour guide will fill in the gaps. The renowned Swiss architect lived and worked for 64 years in the valley until his passing in 1998. 

When city officials reviewed his plans for the house, they pronounced it “crazy,” and it’s hard to disagree. Pitched absurdly high up the rocky hillside, on a steep road to nowhere, the views are as epic as his ambition. His mastery of light, angles and shadows kept the house warm in winter and cool in summer, an astonishing feat given the surroundings. The adorable, minuscule, kidney-shaped pool tempts visitors to dip a toe during the blazing hot summer months.

Finally, Desert X makes its triumphant return to the Coachella Valley for its biennial, odd year appearance. The outdoor, site-specific art show is a global phenomenon that attracted more than 600,000 visitors in 2021. The festival runs from March 4 through May 7, but check the website — some installations never go away, but are more interesting and beautiful in the desert sun.

Kraken fans rejoice! Acrisure Arena has opened, home of the Coachella Valley Firebirds. The Kraken’s American Hockey League affiliate had been playing without home ice in their inaugural season, even playing some “home” games at the Kraken Community Iceplex in Northgate. So put on your Kraken gear and check them out in their brand-new digs. The 11,000-seat arena is the largest in the valley — specifically built for hockey and optimized for concerts — so get ready for some big names onstage as soon as hockey season is over.

Ever wanted to play on the same court as Serena? Tennis fans and desert aficionados alike know that the Indian Wells Tennis Garden is home to the BNP Paribas Open, the unofficial fifth major. This year watch the pros play March 6-19 and bring (or rent) a racquet. Its motto is “Play Where the Pros Play,” and enthusiasts can sign up for clinics or to play matches on the same courts for just $25.

Phillip K. Smith III, Bent Lozenge 2:1, 2022, acrylic, plywood, LED lighting, electronic components, unique color choreography. Photo by Lance Gerber.

Palm Springs’ modernism and bright design aesthetic is best experienced by checking into a hotel. The Hermann Bungalows is the latest project from renowned hotel architect Steve Hermann. The new property offers 24 midcentury modern rooms, each surrounding the 85-foot infinity pool, with epic views of the San Jacinto Mountains. Continuing the midcentury theme, Bar Chingona is an outdoor venue inspired by Mexico City’s craft cocktail scene, served from a retro Airstream. Una poblano margarita, por favor!

Cathedral City, Palm Springs’ more affordable next-door neighbor, has some exciting openings for 2023. The Paloma Resort combines midcentury with Spanish style, offering chic and boutique lodgings just a few miles from downtown Palm Springs. On-site restaurant Sol Y Sombra serves up tapas and cocktails that celebrate the valley’s Spanish roots. Also new to “Cat City” on Palm Canyon Road, Luchador Brewing Company recently opened with craft beer and a Mexican wrestling theme. 

Shopping in “The Dez” is a full-time pursuit, and excellent vintage stores abound. For finely crafted modernist objets d’art, head to Pelago in the furniture design district. The Mojave Flea Trading Post houses multiple micro-boutique treasures. Grab a drink at Palm Springs Bottle Shop inside the flea market. The trendy bodega carries wine and beer exclusively from female, BIPOC and LGBTQ+ makers.

In the movie “Palm Springs,” lead characters Nyles and Sarah wake up on the same day — her sister’s wedding in Palm Springs — over and over. It captures the ennui of the never-changing desert landscape, as the characters strive to break away and explore. But sure enough, they eventually find their own Palm Springs and visitors will, too. Even Seattle travelers who have been visiting the Coachella Valley for years will still, with a little effort, find something unique and new. So, jump in. 

Because Palm Springs rewards exploration.

 

 

Natalie and Greg have written for Travel + Leisure, Fathom, Food52 in addition to Seattle magazine. They’ve been to 117 countries combined. Inbetween trips they live in a houseboat on Seattle’s Lake Union.

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